At home in Burpham with crime writer Simon Brett
PUBLISHED: 09:50 16 December 2015 | UPDATED: 09:50 16 December 2015
Jim Holden www.jimholden.co.uk 07590 683036 01825 841157
In an extraordinarily prolific career, award-winning crime writer Simon Brett has published nearly a hundred novels. He has also written extensively for radio and the stage. Veronica Groocock met him at home in Burpham, near Arundel
Crime writer Simon Brett has agreed to meet me at Arundel Station at 2pm. I wait outside the main entrance, watching people and cars come and go, picking up and dropping off. Then I notice a distant figure standing next to a dark blue car. I am 99 per cent certain that it’s Brett. I walk up to him and he greets me with a warm handshake and a self-deprecating remark about being in his own world. For someone as prolific as Brett, this is probably par for the course. His CV is impressive to say the least: nearly a hundred novels, innumerable radio and stage plays and some prestigious awards.
We drive for a couple of miles along winding country lanes to Burpham, the West Sussex village where he has lived since 1981 with his wife Lucy, who works as head of development at Chichester Festival Theatre. For Brett, one of the initial attractions of his house was that it once belonged to another writer, John Cowper Powys, who apparently moved there in 1902.
Brett and I share a sofa in a comfortable room in the oldest part of the building, circa 1783. Another part is Victorian, and the most recent addition is the ‘Michael Caine Annexe’, a conservatory built on to the kitchen with the proceeds of the film starring Caine, A Shock to the System (1990), adapted from one of Brett’s novels.
What first drew him to Sussex? “I like the proximity of the sea,” he says. “We have a beach hut at Littlehampton, which is great for the four grandchildren. And I do like the Downs, the open spaces…”
Lucy and he also have a very small flat in London. Fortunately, she is a fan of crime fiction, so “when she has to read one of my manuscripts it’s not a hardship”. Does she give him feedback? “She’s honest, but also quite careful!”
They have a daughter and two sons, one of whom – Alastair – has an editorial job and is sometimes called upon to vet the odd draft of something Brett has written.
West Sussex has proved a fertile source of inspiration for his writing, not least in the Fethering series of his novels – Fethering being a fictitious village on the south coast, adjacent to Tarring, a real-life neighbourhood of West Worthing… get it?
It is the home of amateur sleuths Carole Seddon, a retired civil servant, and her neighbour Jude Nichols. Carole is the cautious one, a creature of habit, while Jude tends to be more adventurous and act on impulse. Are they based on anyone he knows? “Not really. I was just intrigued by the contrast between them,” he remarks.
“I guess all characters are based on oneself ultimately. In me, there’s a bit of a conflict between wanting to do the right thing and wishing to be rather more laid-back. I’m probably too much like Carole. One would like to be Jude!”
He enjoys writing about women, and much of his fiction features strong female protagonists. His Mrs Pargeter series of novels depicts a feisty widow with a shadowy past and a penchant for solving some uncanny mysteries. The latest one, Mrs Pargeter’s Principle, was published earlier this year.
It was BBC Radio 4’s brilliantly funny series After Henry in the 1980s that helped establish Brett’s career as a successful and versatile writer. Focusing on the daily tribulations of three generations of women sharing the same house, it starred Prunella Scales, and later transferred to television. The idea came to Brett shortly after the death of his father.
“My mother was going through the process of widowhood well into her 70s…and there was a brief period when my wife’s mother and grandmother lived in the same house”. It turned out to be a “durable” theme which he believes worked better on radio – “but the TV [version] paid for my children’s education, so I’m not going to knock it too much!”
Before moving into full-time writing, he worked as a radio producer, on high profile programmes such as Week Ending, I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue and Just A Minute. The latter two are still going strong, and he recalls that early part of his career with great affection.
“I think I’ve always been slightly stage-struck, so working with comedians and actors was fascinating”. People such as Frank Muir, who was “very generous” to him when Brett gave up the ‘day job’. He also worked with Kenneth Williams, Harry Worth and Ted Ray. Williams, a complex individual, could be “wonderful fun”, but “there was always an undercurrent of depression and sadness about him – comedy and tragedy are close.”
This passion for the entertainment world fed directly into his creation of Charles Paris, the actor/detective with a fondness for alcohol. “When I was working on the Lord Peter Wimsey series [on radio], I was working with a lot of middle-aged actors, so that made me think about the actor’s life and that wonderful mix of flamboyance and vulnerability which they have”.
Bill Nighy has recently played Charles on radio, but Brett’s first Charles Paris novel – Cast, in Order of Disappearance – was published back in 1975. Seventeen others followed, at the breathtaking rate of one a year. There was a 15-year gap, during which he focused on the Fethering series, until 2014 when Paris was ‘resurrected’ in the punningly titled A Decent Interval.
“I think Charles is [the character] closest to me. His circumstances are incredibly different from my own, but his values…I never have difficulty in knowing what he thinks.” He is, Brett concurs, a man who tries so hard to do and say the ‘correct’ thing – “and keeps getting it wrong!” – for instance, in his efforts to remember to refer to actresses as actors, as in current parlance.
One aspect of Brett’s work which is relatively uncommon in much contemporary crime fiction is its absence of anything too graphic or bloodthirsty – a conscious decision on his part. He is not, he says, terribly interested in forensics. “In the States I’m described as this ‘cosy’ British writer. I think that’s fine. Cosy is the Agatha Christie connection where a murder starts an intellectual process…I like that kind of puzzle”.
In any case, he likes to define a character by dialogue rather than by description – a throwback to his radio background.
He admires the late Ruth Rendell for her psychological insights, also P.D. James, Raymond Chandler and Sue Grafton.
In terms of his own writing, “I do have a plan, but the actual writing is organic…the crime bit gives you the structure, but apart from that you can explore the things that interest you, be they human psychology, a person’s work or whatever”.
In his free time he enjoys playing Real Tennis at Petworth. It’s been his main hobby since 1990, when Lucy and a friend bought him a couple of lessons as a birthday present. Many of his fellow players are well into their 80s. “There’s one bloke of 91! So you can play into your maturity.”
How involved is he in village life? He’s not a churchgoer or a committee man, he says, but earlier this year he started a writers’ group which meets in the local pub. They meet once a month and he sets them homework. “It’s very small, about half a dozen. They enjoy it, and I find it quite useful as I’ve done a lot of teaching and tutoring.
“I’m never quite sure whether you can teach someone to write. They have to have enthusiasm, but you can point them in the right direction”.
A lot of people, he finds, still don’t really know what writers do. “Some time ago I remember there was one woman I’d seen when I was walking around the village in the morning. Then I saw her in the pub at lunchtime. She said: ‘I saw you having a walk this morning, Simon, but I didn’t like to say anything because I thought you might be thinking’!” He laughs at this concept of “the author in the carapace of thought, worried about persons from Porlock coming and breaking the concentration!”
The Arundel Theatre Trail is an annual event highlighting eight new short plays in venues around the town over eight days. Brett has written a new play for it each year – 15 to date.
“The most recent one I did was called Vegetable, which involved me being in a persistent vegetative state while two women argued over my prone body, in a bed with a drip in it. I had to lie there for about 40 minutes without twitching!
“I’m a bit of a frustrated ham. I do loads of talks and they let me record my own books for audio, so I get some performing out of my system…I’m very glad I didn’t [become an actor] because I don’t know whether I’ve got the talent. I certainly haven’t the temperament – that thing of constantly bouncing back from rejection. At least as a writer, you can be proactive in a way that an actor can’t”.
He sometimes hankers after the social side of writing for radio. “Writing books is lovely, but there’s no reason why one should ever see another human being whereas writing scripts, you go to rehearsals and meet actors…”
Brett clearly needs both the stimulus of showbiz and the more leisurely pace of life in his rural hideaway. The former, he agrees, is an excellent antidote to the solitude of the writing life.
When I meet him he is eagerly anticipating a trip to the USA around his 70th birthday – to attend a crime convention in Indianapolis as international guest of honour. While there he and Lucy plan to take time out to visit New York and Chicago.
Meanwhile, he has been busy working on yet another novel – a stand-alone thriller called Appeal which has a December deadline. After all this time, does his head still burst with a constant stream of ideas? He laughs. “Touch wood, I have more ideas than time to write them. Long may that continue!”
My favourite Sussex
• Pub: The George, at the end of our garden. It nearly closed down a few years ago and three people in the village bought it. We’ve been here 34 years, and seen managements come and go. And I wrote a Fethering book: Poisoning in the Pub – I didn’t have to do a lot of research…
• Restaurant: The Town House, in Arundel High Street, opposite the castle entrance, is very good. Their local game and seafood are very nice.
• Shop: I like Pallant Delicatessen in Arundel. The staff are very friendly. They have good wines, and a wide range of foodstuffs.
• View: The view from our beach hut at Littlehampton. I always find the sight of the sea reassuring, and I like conjecturing about the lives of people on the boats that sail by.
• Place to visit: Quite recently I went with two of the grandchildren to Sea Life in Brighton, the world’s oldest operating aquarium, and they loved it. I thought it had been very imaginatively reconstructed. It still has original Victorian architecture.